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Earlier this year, I dragged a reluctant flashpacker boyfriend on his first ever business class flight. And Emirates business class Milan MXP to New York JFK sets the bar high. On the lead-up, I was checking daily for business to first upgrades on the Emirates App. Whilst waiting to board our flight, I snagged us a return upgrade just as it went live! Read on to find out how I did and just how different the first class experience is.
When: February 2019
Route: London Heathrow LHR – Milan Linate (LIN) British Airways Club Europe; Milan Malpensa MXP – New York JFK (Emirates Business); New York JFK – Milan Malpensa MXP (Emirates First); Milan Linate LIN – London City LCY (British Airways Club Europe)
Cost: €1,600 / about £1,450 per person Emirate Business Saver return, plus 78,000 AMEX membership rewards points and £200 per person positioning flights London to Milan.
Techniques: Ex-EU positioning, AMEX Cashback, AMEX Reward Points, Emirates Upgrade
Ex-EU Positioning: Business Class London to New York is not always cheap, especially not when trying to book Valentine’s day at short notice! All business class flights to New York out of London were at £2,000 up.
If you are willing to fly out of the EU, you can sometimes get a bargain due to lower taxes. Playing around with different EU cities on Google Flights, I found a non-stop Emirates flight from Milan for £1,450 per person. Emirates is a superior business class product and this price could not be missed. Checking Emirates today (Sep 2019), the cheapest route is in a similar region of £1,649 per person, with loads of availability across dates. Click here to find a route that suits you!
AMEX Platinum Cashback Offers: To get to Milan, we booked through British Airways. American Express Platinum card was offering £200 cashback against bookings of £600 at American Express Travel. I haven’t seen an offer like this since, but it was exclusive to Platinum Cardholders and was an excellent deal! This meant the cost difference of Club Europe compared to Economy would basically be refunded! Had it not been for this offer, I don’t think we would have gone for Club Europe at the time, which was £300pp. You are basically paying to takes shed loads of luggage, ensure no one takes the middle seat, and for as much champagne you can drink in an hour!
That said, fares (as of Sep 19) are currently looking more reasonable. You could get to Milan in Economy for £48pp (return) – see offers here. Or, if you are feeling more flush, Club Europe (Business) is available for around £158pp (return) – see offers here.
If you are travelling to the EU on the same day as your Ex-EU long haul flight, make sure to leave plenty of time, especially if you are travelling with a different airline, as they are under no obligation to re-book you if you miss your flight. We had ages between hours, but thankfully our BA flight went without a hitch.
Emirates Upgrades: And then for the upgrade! At the time of booking, Emirates inform how much an upgrade to the next class would be using Skywards Miles. This does not confirm an upgrade is actually available but can call to find out. An upgrade for one leg on Business Saver is 39,000 miles per person from Milan to New York. Unlike with other airlines, there is no tax or charges when you upgrade with miles! If you are short on miles and phone Emirates who confirm upgrade availability, you may wish to go for the Flex rate and pay 30,000 points per upgrade. However, for us, there was no availability at the time. I, therefore, booked Business and set up an alert for upgrades on the Emirates App, also checking daily.
AMEX to Emirates Points Conversion: I was holding 90,000 membership rewards points in my AMEX account. At a 1:1 AMEX to Emirates conversion rate, this would be enough for two one way first class upgrades. This was accumulated from a combination of the Platinum sign up bonus, referrals, adding on a supplementary cardholder and doing all my shopping on the card for 5 months. If you sign up to the Platinum Card via this link you will get an extra 5,000 bonus points compared to the usual 30,000 if you spend £4,000 in the first three months. There is, however, a £575 fee for the card, so please do your research and make sure it is the right option for you.
Whilst waiting in Milan to check in for our outbound flight, I checked the App and nearly had a heart attack when I saw the return flight was available to upgrade. With shaking hands, I quickly logged into my AMEX account to transfer 78,000 points to my Emirates account. You need to add your Emirates Skywards account to your AMEX beforehand, which can take a little while to verify. The transaction was instant, and I was able to use the points to upgrade straight away! About 10 minutes later, the alert from Emirates came out to say upgrades were available, but on clicking through you could see the seats had already been taken (by us!). So if you are trying to upgrade, check the App regularly. Our upgrade came available 4 days before travel, on the day of the outbound travel.
This review will cover the Emirates routes only.
Business Class MXP – JFK
Arriving at Milan Linate airport, a quick call to our Emirates chauffeur (Emirates text you their mobile number) and he came and met us in the car park. Emirates include chauffeur drive to and from the airport on all legs of your journey when travelling business. You need to pre-book your chauffeur drives using the Emirates App. This is an excellent service, which I wish BA would do! On all legs, the driver was on time. The car was a Mercedes Van, which was nice enough, but I do wish, knowing there was only two of us with two bags in total, that we had been allocated a saloon car. The nicest car (and driver!) we had was leaving JFK in a Range Rover, which coincided with our First Class flight, so perhaps the nicest cars go to First.
We arrived at Milan super early, due to my worry over connecting flights with separately booked airlines (if you are anxious like me, consider a stopover when flying ex-EU!) We were told we could not drop our bags yet and had to wait nearly an hour in the hall, until three hours before departure. Given there was zero queue at the premium check-in I thought this was a bit unnecessary. When entering the premium queue we were batted away several times to the Economy check-in area. Not exactly the greeting you expect…
Things looked up from the point of entering the Emirates lounge at Milan. The lounge was extremely large with a selection of seating for First, Business and elite status customers. I was pretty impressed! There was Veuve Clicquot champagne available, as well as a selection of premium spirits and a hot/cold buffet. Everything was self-serve. There were showers available, but we did not use those. I’d say the lounge was good, but I preferred the United Polaris Lounge, also for business class customers, at Chicago O’Hare. I appreciate an actual bar to sit out and more personalised service.
After a few champagnes, it was time to board before we knew it! We boarded the premium upper deck of the A380 straight from the lounge, which was really cool. Business class was HUGE! 76 seats huge in fact. I did feel a little less ‘exclusive’ all of a sudden. We were next to each other in the middle, where you can operate a divider depending on whether you would like to chat, or not! Without asking, a stewardess offered to take a photo of us.
I was impressed with the seats. Some people do not like the gaudiness of the Emirates cabins, but I’m rather a fan of the wood and gold. Business seats include plenty of storage, a lie-flat bed, a drinks cabinet (not refrigerated though!) and a large screen. There were also amenity kits for him and her, in suede-effect Bulgari bags.
We were offered champagne straight away. All in all the service on the flight was good. As the cabin filled up and after takeoff, it was tricky at times to get the stewards’ attention for a drinks top-up. But if you were that desperate you could go to the bar at the back of the deck (shared by Business and First). I recommended the champagne cocktail (Hennessy & champagne with a cherry – nom nom).
The food was good, but not really that memorable. So much so that I know I had beef, but beyond that I am unsure. We had also had too many champagne cocktails to take photos – sorry! The selection of wines and ports to go with the courses was again perfectly sufficient, but nothing too memorable.
Leaving the plane, we had cleared customs and collected baggage at JFK at a remarkable pace. With so many business passengers arriving, Emirates offer a chauffeur desk where they have your details and your destination ready to go.
First Class JFK – MXP
Our chauffeur dropped us at JFK with plenty of time till our flight. Which is just as well, as we had a nightmare on the way when the boyfriend realised he had left his passport, wallet, laptop, pretty much everything in an NYC bar we had one too many tequilas at. Our chauffeur was amazing, quickly inputting the details of the bar and getting us there in no time, and calming me down as we sat nervously waiting to see if the bag was still there. It was!
Emirates had a dedicated desk at JFK for First, which was a much nicer reception than in Milan. Before we knew it we were in the Emirates JFK lounge. Again, this is shared by First, Business and elite status passengers. It was virtually identical in terms of provision to the Milan lounge, with a slightly better view of the planes. So far though, nothing special about First.
But as we boarded, after a few self-made champagne cocktails in the lounge (with some strange looks from onlookers), there was no comparison! The stewards could see our excitement as we entered the First cabin – just 14 seats, mostly unoccupied. We were greeted by name, asked when we would like a shower, advised we could order food whenever we wanted from the menu…it was all pretty overwhelming, but incredibly friendly.
The First seating was MUCH more impressive than Business. The A380 is not Emirates’ largest or newest First Class (one for the bucket list still!) but it is still immensely impressive. It was the first time I have been on a plane and had a feeling of roominess. The screen is massive. The touches of the rose and vanity mirrors feel luxurious. And the addition of a mattress for when you wish to sleep was sublime.
The amenity kit was also hugely more impressive than the business class offering. The bag for women was a small leather Bulgari duffel bag complete with Bulgari perfume. You also had your own basket of treats. I particularly liked the flight rehydration tablets and pink chocolate bonbons.
But my main focus was maximising the food and drink menu. And boy did I. Emirates First offer an amazing menu. I think the only First class which may rival it is Air France, which I continuously look for a deal on.
The start with we requested Dom Perignon 2008 Vintage Champagne, retailing at around £137 a bottle in the UK. It was lovely and complex and very drinkable, but I’m not convinced £100 more drinkable than a normal decent champagne. The biggest lesson I learnt, pace thyself in First class! I was really pretty skunked by this point.
We paired the champagne with caviar and bellinis, which really was excellent and maybe my favourite part of the menu. Not many airline (BA for example) offer caviar, even in their First cabin. I looked over to my boyfriend, who had been totally against the exorbitance of the trip, and he could not deny the fun he was having.
We moved onto a three course meal and more champagne. I had a beef consomme, which was again delicious. The beef main was just okay, but everything was noticeably a step up from Business. I paired a chocolate tart dessert with a glass of Hennessy Paradis, retailing at almost £1,000 per bottle. Yes…£1,000. It was lovely, but I won’t be going out and dropping a grand on cognac any time soon.
Still persevering (and slurring) I then ordered a cheese board and a port. I was greeted with a 1979 port. I don’t know what it was or how much it was worth, but it was truly truly heavenly.
After a quick trip to the most massive BATHROOM in the sky, exclusively for First passengers, I promptly fell asleep. So much so that I missed my shower call and breakfast. It really was a very, very comfy bed (and I was sozzled).
The Maths: Extravagance or Exorbitance?
At 39,000 AMEX points a pop, the upgrade felt wholly worth it. Running a few Google searches, the cheapest First ticket from Milan to NYC I can find is £4,100 per person, working out at £2,050 each way. Conservatively, the cash value of the upgrade was at least £1,325 (compared to the price we paid for Business each way). This means my AMEX punched in at 3.3p each, way beyond the 1.5p you should target when exchanging AMEX points for airline points!
The difference between Emirates First and Business was so stark that I would consider paying full cash in the future, but it would need to be a special occasion and a great deal. In the meantime, I’ll be convincing the boyfriend to get an AMEX so we can trigger those signup bonuses again!